To Buy or Not To Buy? Somebody Help Me Out!
By Tim O’Toole
Chances are that if you're reading this article you already have a computer. But I'm sure there are a good number of you out there reading at work, a library, or somewhere else with an Internet connection. If you don't have a computer at home, or if your current computer could be considered an antique, there is no better time than now to buy. Due to the ailing technology sector, computer deals are plentiful and prices are lower than ever.
I guarantee the vast majority of you right now are saying "Tim! Are you crazy? I haven't the slightest idea about computers! How am I supposed to buy or upgrade?" Relax! That's what I'm here for, and you've come to the right place. Let's start with those of you thinking about upgrading before we move onto those who are looking to buy their first computer.
Ugh! I Hate This Piece of @%&$!
It seems like it is time to look into upgrading your computer. It is slower than your grandmother and makes more noise than your mother-in-law. It has brought you to your breaking point. So what do you do? Upgrade, right? WRONG! In my humble opinion, upgrading your computer is one of the worst mistakes you could possibly make. Now I'm not talking about most software. If you have Access 97, for example, and want to upgrade to Access 2000 or XP, go for it. But if you're looking into upgrading your operating system or hardware, you might as well save your time and money, and skip down to the next section.
Let me create a little scenario for you. It's 2003. Your computer is still running Windows 95. Think it's time to upgrade? You're darn right it is! The obvious choice is Windows XP. But hold on there friend! You can't possibly think of putting Windows XP on that machine. It's much to slow. You'll need to buy some RAM in addition. So now you're buying a new operating system and RAM. That's not too bad, right? Don't head toward that checkout line yet! Windows XP isn't compatible with your modem! You're going to need a new one if you ever want to get online. It's a little more than you expected, but you're just happy to get current with technology. Whoa, whoa, whoa! I didn't say you were ready to check out. You still need a new keyboard, sound card, and graphics card, not to mention installation fees and extended warranties and on and on and on.
Do you see how upgrading can have a snowball effect? Instead of spending the planned $99.99, you ended up spending hundreds of dollars. The same hundreds you could have used to buy a brand new system.
So You've Decided to Buy a Computer
Congratulations! You've decided to give into the growing demand for technology! Good for you. Your first step in buying a computer is to figure out what its primary uses are going to be. For example, are you buying it to run your business? Surf the Internet? Play games?
If you're buying for business, my suggestion is to get the best computer you can afford. It will extend the life a little further before you have to consider upgrading and going through this whole process again. If you're buying a computer to simply surf the Internet and send those annoying e-mail forwards to your friends, you definitely will not need a top of the line system. We shall begin our journey by looking at hardware necessities.
Processor a.k.a. CPU
The CPU is the brains of the computer. It is where most calculations take place, and it is the most important element of a computer system. After waiting in rush hour traffic all day, the last thing you'll want to do is wait for your computer to load up. Look for the fastest speed you can, and go with it. Anything at or above 2.0 gigahertz (GHz) is a good speed. However, let me warn you: there will not be much of a difference between 2.0GHz and 3.0GHz. If you're on a tight budget, save your money, and go with a slightly lower speed.
Now that we have the speed covered, what brand should you go with? I prefer Intel over AMD, but both are very good. When you go into a store, the salesman is going to feed you a line about how you shouldn't buy an Intel Celeron chip, it's garbage, go with an Intel Pentium, blah, blah, blah. Don't buy it. "But Tim, why would he lie to me?" When a salesman sees an uneducated computer customer, do you know what sound he hears in his head? Cha-ching! He is going to make commission on the sale, and Pentium chips go for much more than Celeron chips. That being said, I would still take the Pentium (go with the most recent, currently IV). It allows you to do greater things with your computer such as streaming video and prettier pictures. But if you're not going to create vast multimedia presentations, it is perfectly acceptable to buy the cheaper Celeron chip.
Random access memory (RAM) will also affect the speed of your computer. RAM can access bytes of memory without accessing previous bytes. In the case of RAM, the bigger the better. It isn't very expensive, so it won't affect the cost of your computer too much. I would suggest at least 256MB, but you would be better off going with 512MB.
The hard drive is where you store your programs and files. Like RAM, the bigger the better. I suggest 40GB (gigabytes), but this all depends on what you're planning to do. If you're downloading every MP3 you can get your mouse on (shame on you, that's illegal!) you'll want a very large hard drive, at least 80GB. However, 40GB should be perfectly acceptable for business and home.
I was shocked when I saw that disk drives are no longer standard on computers. Rewritable CDs are making the floppy disk obsolete, but if you can find a system that still comes with a disk drive, grab it. If not, you may want to consider buying an external one for your system.
CD-RW / DVD Drive
As I just mentioned, floppy disks are going out of style quicker than reality TV. CDs are the storage media of the present and future. Make sure your computer comes with a CD-RW with a speed of around 48x24x48. You will also want a DVD. It comes in handy if you need to make a copy of a CD or watch a movie on your lunch break.
Most computers come with a V.92 high-speed modem and 10/100Base-T Ethernet networking card. The modem allows you to dial-up onto the Internet, and the network card allows you to connect to the Internet via a broadband or cable connection. Simply put, if the computer that you are looking at does not have both of these, don't buy it.
Ports and Slots
USB ports make life very nice. You'll want at least four. You will use these for just about all printers, scanners, web cams, and even your keyboard and mouse.
The number of expansion slots you want will depend on whether or not you plan on upgrading. If you read the first section of this article you know how I feel about upgrading, but regardless, your computer should come with around three expansion slots.
Keyboard and Mouse
I personally prefer keyboards that light up and have buttons all over that do tons of things I will never even use. If you're comfortable with this type of keyboard, I would recommend getting it. You can control your CD drives, your speakers, and even some Internet functions right from your keyboard. Of course, the main purpose of a keyboard is to type, so as long as it has twenty-six letters, ten numbers, and a variety of punctuation and Shifts, Alts and Ctrls, it will do just fine.
As for your mouse, make sure it is optical. An optical mouse does not have those little annoying balls we've all grown to hate over the years. You know, the ones that get gunk caught in them and then they stop working? You won't have to deal with that ever again! If the computer you purchase does not come packaged with an optical mouse, go out and buy one immediately (make sure you have a free USB port as mentioned above).
Unless your computer is your home entertainment center, and you really are planning on watching DVDs on your lunch break, your standard card is just fine.
Like your sound card, the standard is fine. However, if you like computer games and you're really pumped up about Doom III, buy the most expensive card you can find, most likely Radeon.
That finishes up hardware. On to software!
You will want Windows XP. This is standard in computers 99.9% of the time. Occasionally you will run across a rogue computer user that will swear up and down that Microsoft is a monopoly and Bill Gates is the devil. This may or may not be true, but regardless, they make the best operating system available.
Again, you will want to go with Office XP by Microsoft. It comes with Word (fantastic word processor), Excel (create spreadsheets), PowerPoint (great multimedia presentations), and Outlook (the standard e-mail application). If you're buying for business, you will want to purchase the Professional Edition for Access (database application).
Of course there are several more software applications that are useful, but they are conditional on what functions and tasks you are performing.
That wraps up our computer buying tutorial, and should answer most questions you might have. However, please feel free to contact me either by phone at (800) 536-2225 or by e-mail if you have any more questions.
Good luck in your purchasing endeavors!
About the Author
Tim O’Toole is the Director of Marketing, Education, and Information Technology for the MCAA. He has a Masters in Business Administration from Webster University and has worked in the masonry industry since 2003.